I hate when this happens.
I’ve been looking forward to hearing Vampire Weekend’s second album for months. I resisted their debut for as long as I could, and then bought it expecting some typically over-hyped indie rock nothing, but what I got was something extraordinary. Easily one of the five best debut albums of the last 10 years, Vampire Weekend immediately had me simultaneously excited and worried for their follow-up.
And now it’s here, and I’ve heard it about 12 times, and I’m still just as conflicted.
The one thing I will definitely say is that the VW boys deserve endless credit for not going over the same ground again. That would have been easy – their debut album was equal parts African pop and American indie-punk, performed with a winning innocence and an organic warmth. Had they delivered another 10 or 12 songs like “Oxford Comma” or “Bryn,” they would have had an immediate hit on their hands. But even though they’ve gone with a similar cover design and font, making the two records look like sequential issues of a magazine, the Vampire Weekenders have taken their sound to new places on their follow-up, called Contra.
Ordinarily, that would be an unqualified good thing, as far as I’m concerned. But in this case, the sound of the debut was so ingratiating, so immediately wonderful, that I can’t help wanting more of it. And instead, Vampire Weekend has given me something willfully odd. I’ve been trying to appreciate it on its own terms, and enjoy it, but I’m afraid that all the sonic exploration on this album is masking some pretty weak songs.
But let’s talk about the new sounds. Contra sticks with the African influences, and even ramps them up in places. But it also allows keyboardist/producer Rostam Batmanglij an even freer rein – a distressingly large chunk of Contra sounds programmed, with blipping synths and electronic drums where real African percussion ought to be. They don’t ease you in, either – the first two songs contain no guitars at all. It helps that they’re both very good, particularly “White Sky,” which soars on gossamer wings of percussion and Ezra Koenig’s untethered falsetto. It’s beautiful, and if they’d written a few more like it, I would have embraced the new material without question.
But no. Instead we have songs like “Taxi Cab,” which meanders aimlessly for four minutes atop Casio synths and handclaps. If you’re waiting for the chorus, don’t bother – it never comes. “Run” uses the same dippy keyboard sounds, but adds a mariachi horn section, which is interesting, but not particularly successful. The six-minute “Diplomat’s Son” is the weakest thing Vampire Weekend has yet given us – it samples M.I.A. while repeating three chords endlessly. Only Koenig’s high voice comes close to saving it, but then it devolves over a cheeseball ‘80s electronic beat, turning into bargain basement Fiery Furnaces. At this point it becomes pretty much unlistenable.
So far, it doesn’t sound like I’m conflicted, right? Well, there is magic and wonder on Contra, too. “Holiday,” at track three, is probably the closest in tone to the debut, and even that throws in a little rockabilly, just for spice. “California English” actually finds Koenig whipping out the Auto-Tune (or perhaps the “I Am T-Pain” iPhone app), but it’s got an awesome little chorus, and some sweet guitar lines. Single “Cousins” is fabulous, easily the most live-band energetic throwdown on the album. And closer “I Think Ur a Contra” is surprisingly moody and ambient, and for that, I can forgive its lack of melody.
Roughly half of this album grabbed me right away, and the other half has slowly diminished since that first listen. But the most surprising track is “Giving Up the Gun,” which ditches the otherwise ever-present Afrobeat entirely and gives us pulsing ‘80s synth bass under a pretty straightforward pop song. This is what Vampire Weekend might sound like if they gave up everything that makes them special, and even so, it’s not bad. Still, no song encapsulates my conflicting feelings over this album like this one does.
It’s hard to call Contra a sophomore slump, because the VW boys clearly tried hard to push at their own boundaries – even the ones that didn’t need to be pushed. It’s a strikingly confident record, even when it doesn’t work, and I can’t fault it for ambition. When it does work, as on the amazing “White Sky,” Contra feels like a natural next step. I hope next time out, the band takes a hard look at this spotty, messy second effort, figures out which paths led to dead ends, and keeps walking down the others. There’s much to like on this album, but much I hope never to hear on a Vampire Weekend record again.
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Going into this week, I expected to love the Vampire Weekend, and give the new OK Go, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, only a cursory listen. Imagine my surprise, then, when Contra turned out to be inconsistent and shaky, and Colour instantly became an early front-runner for my favorite album of 2010.
I’ve never been a huge fan of OK Go, despite their Chicago origins. Their first two albums were catchy and fun, but not particularly memorable – the viral videos of the foursome on treadmills were more interesting than the songs they accompanied. But Colour is something else altogether, a defiant sideways step into something much stranger and more compelling.
For their third outing, OK Go hired Dave Fridmann to sit in the producer’s chair. Fridmann, a former member of Mercury Rev, is best known as the producer of just about every Flaming Lips album, and he adds a striking, psychedelic edge to the band’s sound. In turn, the band members have written some of their weirdest and strongest tunes, nimbly jumping over their power-pop past. The result sounds like what might happen if the Lips tried to make Prince’s 1999 – it’s a compelling blend of danceable funk and alien atmospherics.
Take the self-referential opener, “WTF?” It borrows liberally from the Purple One’s ‘80s output, incorporating the clean funk guitar, the falsetto vocals, and even a trademark Hendrix-with-epilepsy solo in the middle. But it’s in 5/4, which means it’s impossible to dance to, and the drums all sound like they were recorded with 50-year-old microphones shoved directly into them. As the album progresses, the band continuously plays to these two influences: “This Too Shall Pass” is more Lips, with its massive keyboard fanfares, while “White Knuckles” is 100% Prince, right down to the synth lines that sound ready-made for the Revolution – until the insane lead guitar lines start up.
The final third of the album is darker and deeper, starting with the extraordinary “Before the Earth Was Round” – the vocals are pure Wayne Coyne circa Yoshimi – and continuing with the sparse acoustic interlude “Last Leaf.” That song pivots on the nakedly romantic line “And if it takes forever, forever it’ll be,” and while the album never gets that emotional again, it’s a lovely moment. The last three tracks get bigger and bigger, until the six-minute “In the Glass” concludes with a massive repeated coda.
I have a major reservation about this album, and you’ve probably guessed it – OK Go is a band without a consistent identity. Their debut was cheeky power pop, complete with cheesy synths, stacked vocals and numerous Jellyfish moments. Then they hired Franz Ferdinand producer Tore Johansson to helm their second, Oh No, and (surprise!) it sounds like Franz, rawer and more angular. Now with Fridmann behind the boards, they’ve made a Flaming Lips record (albeit a better Lips record than that band’s own Embryonic, from last year). OK Go has spent so much time sounding like other artists that I have no real idea what kind of band they’re meant to be.
But in the absence of that, I’ll take an album like Colour, which surprised me from first song to last. The common denominator has always been frontman Damian Kulash, who never fails to write well-crafted songs, whatever style he’s aping. Colour is a thoroughly unexpected triumph from out of nowhere, a dark and dreamy record that should bring OK Go some well-deserved attention. Who knows how long it will remain on top of the (admittedly small) 2010 heap, but the fact that it’s there at all right now is pretty amazing to me, and you should definitely take that as a strong recommendation.
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And now, the next installment in my Top 20 of the Decade. I swear, I didn’t plan it like this, it just happened. But it’s serendipity, because it gives me an opportunity to remember why I liked this band so much in the first place.
#19. Vampire Weekend (2008).
I can’t even tell you how much I didn’t want to hear Vampire Weekend’s debut album. It dropped in January of 2008, amid an ocean of hype, and after suffering through similar tsunamis of breathless excitement over similarly-named indie-rock shithole bands in 2007, I’d had enough. I decided I wasn’t even going to listen to a single song. Vampire Weekend and its inexorable hype machine just weren’t for me.
But I kept reading articles and reviews, and the album just kept sounding more interesting to me. I think my resolve lasted four weeks or so, and then I broke down. The whole time, I kept grumbling to myself. “Vampire Weekend. What an awful name. I bet it’s some goth bullshit.” “Ooh, look at the oh-so-artsy cover. Nice photo, Leibovitz.” “I’m going to regret paying for this, aren’t I?”
You all know what happened next. I listened to Vampire Weekend, and was suitably blown away by its delirious mixture of college rock and African pop. It was like these four New York kids had grown up listening to nothing but Paul Simon’s Graceland, and were stunned to find out that people their own age had never heard of it. So they decided to recreate it, but without traveling to Africa or importing African musicians. And also, they decided to do it with an energy you only have when you’re young. Ezra Koenig was only 24 when Vampire Weekend was released. Paul Simon was 45 when he made Graceland.
So what you have here is an album that combines a literate, global sensibility with an enthusiasm usually found only in bands just learning their instruments. It’s wide-eyed and wonderful, and flush with possibility. Just check out “A-Punk,” which could be this record’s mission statement. It opens with a terrific high-skipping guitar figure over a commanding beat, but then drops into a lovely pipes-and-percussion chorus, complete with “oh, oh” vocals. This shouldn’t work, but it does, marvelously.
Just about every song on Vampire Weekend is a highlight. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is a singular delight, but the baroque arrangement of “M79” is a treat, as is the brief yet brilliant “Bryn.” Only on “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” do they hint at where they went next with Contra, all blipping keyboards. Everything else sounds like a group of fresh-faced music theory students having a great time bashing this stuff out in their dorm rooms. It’s one of the warmest albums you’re likely to hear.
In 2008, Vampire Weekend was a breath of fresh air. Here was a sound no one else was doing, a sound so fascinating and so fully-formed that it almost felt surreal. It’s simultaneously important-sounding, and tons of fun. There is still no other band like them, and with their second album, they’ve kind of left the debut as an island unto itself. But it’s an amazing island, and no amount of gasping hype can take that away.
It’s one of the best albums of the decade because its authors came up with something that sounded brand new, and did it with an uncomplicated shrug. The best music sounds effortless, like it was merely breathed into being, no matter how much sweat and toil went into it. Vampire Weekend is strikingly original, and whimsically playful – it’s a joy from front to back, which belies how precise and perfectly-formed it is. They are a band for the Internet age, not only building buzz online, but absorbing everything they hear on the World Wide Web. The world is getting smaller, and Vampire Weekend is the sound of cultural walls collapsing, with no fanfare whatsoever. It just sounds natural, and exactly right.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.